It’s “FREE REIN”, not “free reign”

May 7, 2023 • 9:15 am

In the last week I’ve seen the term “free reign” used three times. It almost seems more common than the correct usage, which is “free rein.” And it’s not as if the language is changing, either, for “free reign” simply doesn’t make any sense, while “free rein” makes a lot of sense.

Here, let Merriam-Webster explain it to you, though I expect most readers here will know the correct usage:

Origins of Free Rein

The expression “free rein” originated as horseback-riding jargon referring to the act of holding the reins (the straps by which a rider controls the horse) loosely so as to allow the horse to freely move along at its own pace and in its desired direction. Figurative use of the phrase referring to freedom of action goes back to the 17th century.

The tongues of Angels are not able to expresse what benefits doe redound unto man by the right ordering of the tongue, and what harmes and inconveniences againe, when we give it free reines to lash out.
— Alexander Read, The Chirurgicall Lectures of Tumors and Ulcers, 1635

Then things begin to go downhill:

About two centuries later, the phrase perplexingly begins appearing in print in the form “free reign.”

Here we may give free reign to our imagination, with the moral certainty that science will supply nothing tending either to prove or to disprove any of its fancies.
— The Salvator and Scientist (Chicago, Illinois), September 1896

Why it begins to appear during a time when the horse was still the primary mode of transportation is puzzling. On the other hand, in modern times, misinterpretation of “free rein” as “free reign” is a bit more understandable—though still grammatically wrong—after all, how often does the average person handle the reins of a horse? To those unfamiliar with the equestrian origin of the phrase, reign with its association with monarchy (influenced by the media’s obsession with the English Royal Family) might seem the better choice than a word for straps to control a horse, and an Internet search will confirm that quite a few people agree.

If you are one of those people, we would like to offer a couple of mnemonics to help you mentally autocorrect “free reign” before it becomes an acceptable (yet still illogical) variant of “free rein.” First, remember that reigning as king and queen entails having the freedom to choose and make decisions; therefore, monarchs have “free rein” during their reign. Also, there are a handful of other common figurative phrases originating from a horse’s rein that you can associate with “free rein” if you have a brain cramp.

The supervisor has/keeps a tight rein on every stage of production.

We need to rein in our spending.

She handed over the reins of the company to her successor.

As you can see, rein is the word to use when implying holding back or granting freedom of action; reign, on the other hand, is reserved for the ruling over a people or land. “Free reign” might sound impressive to you but not to your editor or teacher.

In summary: Reign is royal authority, the influence and sway of a ruler, or one who resembles a ruler. Rein is the strap fastened to an animal (such as a horse or mule) by a bit, which allows a rider or driver to control the animal. If you rule over something you may be said to reign over it. If you are allowed a great deal of freedom you might be said to have free rein.

Don’t bother to tell me that this is just another example of language changing. It may be changing, but it’s also becoming wrong, as “free reign”, as a metaphor, conjures up nothing. As Orwell said, if you use language, it should express something you can visualize as meaningful.


65 thoughts on “It’s “FREE REIN”, not “free reign”

  1. Let’s not reign over PCC’s parade… strike that.
    Let’s not rein over PCC’s parade… strike that.
    Let’s not rain over PCC’s parade.

    1. The reign in Spain falls mainly on the plain — or at least it did during certain sieges in the battles between the Republicans and the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.

  2. Similarly — and contrary to most Americans — it’s not “I could care less” (which makes no sense), it’s “I couldn’t care less”.

    And it’s not: “If you think that, you have another thing coming” (where “thing” there is an empty, nothing word), it’s “… you have another think coming” (where “think” is a witty repeat of the first use).

    1. Another good sense saying that got lost its meaning when crossing the Atlantic is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, which somehow got amended to “the proof is in the pudding”

    1. No. He’s a “constitutional” monarch, not an absolute monarch. He couldn’t, for example, order a jury who acquit someone of a charge of protesting against the coronation to be detained in jail until they recant their heresy.
      That the constitution hasn’t been written on panels publicly displayed in prominent places suggests that British law is still living in a time before Hammurabi or Sargon of Akkad, about 5000 years ago ; but that’s a defensible position.

  3. I won’t say you’re wrong because language changes, but I will say you’re wrong that “free reign” makes no sense. For people who don’t know the etymology, it seems to me that “free reign” makes perfect sense. A person is “free” to “reign” over something. “He has free reign over the department” would make complete sense if one was trying to convey that someone had complete authority. It seems quite simple.

    Same thing as with “champing at the bit” versus “chomping,” which is one that really gets my goat, but I’ve come to accept has changed for good because, well, 99.99% of people just don’t own horses anymore, and haven’t for a long time. Chomping still seems to make sense to someone not acquainted with the etymology, although, in that case, I doubt they’ve ever thought about what it literally means in the first place. But, if one knows what a bit is, it’s certainly chomped on!

    Of course, I too am a stickler for these things. But the words “free reign” do seem to make logical sense, even if the phrase isn’t supposed to be spelled that way. It’s wrong, but it’s not meaningless or illogical.

    1. I’m not sure that bits are chomped on, if chomping means to bite down with force. The bit part of the bridle that slips into the horse’s mouth lies in the toothless space between the incisors and the molars. A nervous horse will make chewing-like drooling motions against the bit, in the same way we try to work stuck food particles out between our teeth before resorting to a toothpick. Only rarely can it get the bit back over the molars and chomp down on it. Some willful horses do get their jaws set hard enough against the bit in its normal position that a tug on the reins won’t control its head. Riding instructors at the boarding school across the street from us kept horses like that away from us novices. But this is called taking the bit between his (metaphorical) teeth, not chomping on it.

      NPR says champing is just an old-fashioned word for chomping. I don’t agree, and neither do my sister-in-law’s family of horse people. Hang in there for champing.

      1. There is also the idiom “chafing at the bit,” derived, I believe, from the tendency of the lines (ropes) making a boat fast to a fixture (a common such fixture being known as a “bit”) to chafe when a boat is being tugged away from a pier or other structure by a current or breeze.

      2. Welp, I was wrong about the chomping! On the other hand, I kind of proved my point: idioms that come from the times when most people were familiar with horses are bound to become misinterpreted, or undergo change that makes them seem more logical to today’s modal human.

  4. Don’t bother to tell me that this is just another example of language changing.

    I hate it when people use that argument. Yes, language changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

    1. Especially when it’s (1) due to ignorance, as in the “free reign” example, or (2) dictated from above by authoritarian woke crazies.

      And don’t even get me started on the abominable error “to pour over” (documents, etc.)…

    2. Changing language is very analogous to biological evolution. Mutations can be detrimental or beneficial but 99% are just neutral

      1. I think the proportion of truly neutral mutations – where a change in the genome is not reflected in any sort of change in the phenotype – is considerably lower than 99%. I think, since this is a thread on language and it’s minutiae, the claim you’re trying to make is more like “99% of mutations are of negligible or undetectably small effect”. Which is not quite the same thing.
        The truly neutral mutations I’m thinking of are those where, for example, the GCA base pair triple is mutated to GCC – which when translated into a protein would mean substituting a glycine amino acid for a glycine amino acid in the resultant protein.
        I may have misremembered the specific “neutral” codons and amino acid, but in general there is considerable redundancy in the genetic code. 64 possible triples of base pairs map onto 20-odd amino acids (plus several “STOP” codons), so about 1/3 to 1/2 of mutations will have no effect whatsoever.
        Of course, it gets more complex when you’ve got DNA which is read in different “reading frames” (“1,2,3” versus “2,3,1” versus “3,1,2”) in different contexts – I recall that one such base-insertion mutation resulted in the infamous “plastic-digesting” bacterium discovered in the early 1980s in a Japanese plastics manufacturing plant.

  5. “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too” doesn’t make any sense, and I think it’s more common than “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too”, which makes perfect sense.

    1. If you are eating your cake then it follows that you already have it, until it’s all eaten. If you have no cake to begin with, you cannot eat it. If you have cake and eat it, you no longer have cake. Thus, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

      Really, both ways make the same point, but the traditional saying has ‘cake’ before ‘eat it’.

  6. I tried boldly to go and read the Merriam-Webster explanation, but I could not get past the split infinitive in the first sentence …

  7. When I see “loose” instead of “lose”, as in “one mustn’t loose hope”, it requires a supreme effort not to dismiss the writer as an idiot.

      1. Speaking as one who wrote a column of that title for the local bar association monthly rag, I expressed that thought thus (there being no such word as “thusly”):

        Geoghegan’s First Corollary:

        “It is often true that those who do not know what they are saying do not know what they are talking about.”

  8. The whole thing about people no longer being familiar with horses as an everyday thing brings to mind another phrase that people currently misunderstand, and that is “exceptions prove the rule”. Most people equate the word “prove” with “verify”, and in that aspect, the phrase makes no logical sense. However, at one time, the word “prove” meant “test”, which meaning is preserved in terms like “proofreading”, “proof copy” and “proving ground”. If you replace the word “prove” with “test”, the notion of exceptions testing the rule is spot on.

    1. I agree that the phrase does not make sense in the form as it used. However I am not sure the change in the meaning of “prove” is to blame. It is originally a Latin phrase and it also exist in Hungarian, however it is even worse, because the Hungarian version has only the wrong meaning that does not make sense. And I do not think the Hungarian version came via English, it is probably directly from Latin. So this must be an old and international flaw with the interpretation of the phrase.

      BTW, the Hungarian version is “a kivétel erősíti a szabályt” and it literally means “the exception strengthens the rule”. And that is exactly the opposite of what exceptions usually do to rules.

    2. As our river horse associate points out, the English (and American) “to prove” comes from a Latin root “probare” – which also gives us “to probe”.
      Wherever “Aberdeen” is in America, it has a (Navy, Army, not sure) “Proving Ground” where a variety of munitions are tested (“probed”) for reliable operation to “prove” that they’re fit for use.

      1. “Tow the line” implies pulling the party line forward (metaphorically a rope or line). I’m guessing “Toe the line” implies going up to but not crossing some metaphorical line in the sand.

        1. Toeing the line is a strongly worded admonition to line up for inspection with boot toes on a chalk line drawn by the corporal, with unspeakable penalties for non-compliance. The expression was even used in Boy Scouts during my youth…and on into medical practice. When told to toe the line you are being given the exact opposite of a free rein.

        2. Except that a party line (today) means a broad front of polices and positions unrelated to each other that must be remembered as a list, not a set of positions that can be deduced from each other.

  9. And whilst we’re at it, could I sound off about the bizarre neologism “to coronate”. As in King Charles was coronated. He was crowned. Simple enough I would have thought?

    1. Ahh, but the language is changing. In today’s vernacular, the correct usage would be: Charles was coronized.

    2. Actually that crown looked as big as a bird cage, so I think we could
      say “he was crowed”

  10. Exactly so. Mangled metaphors are ridiculously common. My particular bugbear is radio announcers telling me in the the UK that the local traffic is “clear as a bell”….

  11. I think people just don’t know what reins are anymore and they assume the phrase must be “free reign” because they at least know that reign is a word. So they go with that spelling when the expression pops into their head, even though they haven’t the slightest idea what it might mean. And learning anything about horsemanship in school must now be unspeakably racist.

    The Economist calls these things “egg-corns” (as in “tow the line”) and asks for kindness and tolerance toward the misinformed. While “gave free rein” does not mean the same at all as “gave free reign”—one is granted, the other is seized and cannot be “given”—none the less the usage might change to where “reign” does become logically correct. After all, all of us would prefer to reign freely over the risk of being at any moment reined (in) by the boss and made to go stand in the rain.

  12. There’s quite a lot of this about, and there has been for some time, as the Merriam-Webster quote from 1896 illustrates. Orwell himself mentioned ‘tow the line’ for (‘toe the line’), as Leslie also did in #15 above. My own bugbears include ‘hone in on’ (instead of ‘home’); and ‘careen’ (as in, say, ‘careening downhill’ instead of ‘career’). Careen means to run a boat aground so you can scrape barnacles off its hull.

    Orwell commented that this frequently happens when metaphors become untethered from their origins. When that happens, the striking image that a metaphor is meant to conjure up ceases to be striking. Orwell suggested that we should simply stop using such ‘dead’ metaphors. That would be a good idea all round.

  13. This post peaked my interest while I sit biting my time in anticipation of a storm. Not that I could care less about the misuse of language, but I suspect that most people use “reign” on accident rather than through any deep-seeded understanding of the word. While I myself remain unphased by the word, I want to hone in on one important point. Now, perhaps it is a mute point, but, irregardless, I want to nip in the butt a common misunderstanding: language change through ignorance is not a worse-case scenario. For all intensive purposes, it happens all the time. That’s how “rein” and “reign” became one in the same. And this particular example my not even be a shoe in for the most egregious linguistic crime we could of cited. (Is their a statue of limitations on such offenses?) In any case, it gives me some piece of mind to reflect on our smorgasboard of language. Thanks for wetting my appetite, Jerry! I await the next post with baited breath.

  14. Thank you for stressing this one – I’ve even noted the error regularly in published novels.

    Like the user from comment 4, I gathered “free reign” swelled to common mis-usage specifically because it *does* conjure the notion of someone being free to control or rule over something.

  15. If you watched the coronation and read the subtitles, you realized that the latter were hilariously mistaken when you compared them to what was being said by the announcer. I suspect they were done by AI or something similar, because whatever/whomever was responsible did not recognize where one word ended and the next began. Here are some the subtitles; see if you can figure out what was really said: service is Solomon; this blender; his phone was a (cross) as a dachshund; narly to family; bracelets of mammals; one gold is pollination coronation; praise for the king of pepper; enzyme bird; Father Lee; manik; .focusing the cut sang the mouth; achieve in this rain; Some Margaret’s Church; antitoxin; Koran (instead of coronation); Barack soloists; winds are gray; distrust (instead of this trust);soaring knave (my favorite); Brooklyn (instead of Bruckner); outside the app (instead of Abbey);all the wild boar people. I missed many more because they went by faster than I could write them down. Enjoy!

  16. It’s probably simply a matter of people knowing what a reign is but not what a rein is. In fact they are so much more familiar with reign, that rein looks like it is a misspelling. And while I have been given authority over a project where I was free to exercise that authority in any way, no one has ever given me a free rein. Perhaps if monarchies slide into the realm of obscure history we may see people being given free rain in the future.

  17. I find it’s rich for a yank to make such bold statements about language.
    Aluminum, (h)erb, color, moose, elk, twot.
    You guys haven’t mastered words yet, let alone terms of phrase.

    1. Bye, Yew. By the way, it’s “turn of phrase”, not “terms of phrase.” I think it’s rich for a critic to make such a mistake.

      Virtually all your comments have been rude or uncivil, so you’ll have to find another website to haunt.

  18. The way that I see it, “free reign” makes perfect sense insofar as meaning freedom to control a scenario without oversight. In a sense both free reign and free rein, in this context, have the same definition.

    1. They might both be logically correct (which is why we should be nice to people who use egg-corns) but the expression is still “free rein” and comes from horses, not kings. Free rein means that a supervisor could keep you in check if he desired but chooses to give you your head. After all, he’s still sitting on your back with spurs on his boots and still has the reins in his hand. You’re still on a short leash. You’re not the undisputed ruler of all you survey just because you have been given free rein. Someone who says “free reign” is allowing the language to be less precise than it is capable of.

      It might also logically be said that SOS stands for “Save Our Ship”. But it doesn’t.

  19. Some old phrases survive unchanged, despite the loss of familiarity with their origin. Most of us will understand the meaning of “flash in the pan” or “lock, stock, and barrel”, but few of use flintlock muskets anymore.


  20. As a person grounded in nostalgia, who also has spent many years learning to ride, I am always irked by the misuse of reign and rein.
    I have also noticed a complete blurring of boarder and border. Even Washington Post writers will use the incorrect word when writing about border issues.

    1. I haven’t – yet ! – seen the phrase “repel all borders” being used. Or, for that matter, talk of the “Boarder Force” protecting our boarders from unwashed borders. But I feel it is coming.
      At least Liverpool will be spared from such abuses.

  21. I’m a cyclist, so I am astounded by how many people “peddle” their bikes when they ride. Or use the “breaks” to slow down.

    I’ve tried to become more forgiving of people mis-speaking (mis-typing?) because I’ve done it myself. It’s too easy when banging something out quickly to use a homophone in place of the word you want (their, there, and they’re for example). I usually make an effort to proof everything I write but there have been times I’ve been hasty with the “send” button and embarrassed myself.

    Still, it’s hard not to be judgmental sometimes!

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